While most future television stars studied acting, Mark Curry of ABC's new fall sitcom "Hangin' With Mr. Cooper" managed a laugh-as-you-wait drugstore.
The Oakland shop was Curry's stage, where he kept the customers cheerful by trying out material for his after-hour's comedy club act.
"I had a patter," he recalls. "Customers came in and I'd do jokes. I wrote a lot of my jokes in that drugstore. I tried them out on customers and my co-workers. You know how managers are supposed to be stern? I was so and friendy."
Curry worked at the drugstore for seven years before he was successful enough as a comedian to quit. He said he hated to quit the job but couldn't keep calling in sick. His grandmother had "died" three times. He was running out of excuses.
In "Hanging with Mr. Cooper," Curry plays a substitute school teacher who shares a house with two women, Dawnn Lewis and Holly Robinson, in what could be described as a black version of "Three's Company."
Coincidentally, one performer who gave Curry a lot of encouragement for his TV role was Suzanne Somers, who starred in "Three's Company" for four years.
"She gave me good advice," he said. "I couldn't believe now nice she was. She told me all about Hollywood and television."
Not only is "Hangin' With Mr. Cooper" Curry's first series, it also is the first time he has acted in a sitcom. He has starred in his own HBO special, "One Night Stand," and is the host of "Showtime at the Apollo."
His first appearance on "Arsenio" was interrupted bv a special report on the gulf war, but he's scheduled to return the day before "Mr. Cooper" debuts on Sept. 22.
Curry's experience as a stand-up comedian helped him be at ease in front of a TV camera, with his effervescent personality and amusing facial expressions and body movements.
"Mr. Cooper" came about after copies of Curry's HBO special were sent to the networks. ABC signed him to a contract and began seeking a show for him.
"I wanted the right vehicle," he said. "I didn't want to do a show just to he doing a show."
ABC gave Curry the enviable Tuesday-night time slot after "Full House" and before "Roseanne." His show was created by Jeff Franklin, who also created "Full House."
Curry, the youngest of eight children, grew up in East Oakland. He attended parochial school, where he became the class clown and practiced "capping," the art of topping someone else's humorous remark with a funnier one. He attended college for several years but quit to manage the drugstore where he had been working part time.
"You don't grow up to be a comedian," said Curry, who gives his age only as late 20s. "You grow up to be a lawyer or doctor. I'm glad I didn't start doing stand-up until later. If I'd started at 18, I'd have burned out. I didn't take it seriously until later."
He started doing stand-up in 1987, though he said he didn't get paid the first few years.
"I'm still doing stand-up," he said. "In fact, I'm going on tour before we start the show. I'll do my act until the day we start shooting. We'll film three weeks, then take off a week. I've already got my dates lined up for then. It's important for me to keep working.
"Doing this show is sending my price up and increasing my audience. It'll put me in bigger rooms, which is good and bad. It doesn't affect the comedy, but it's not as intimate."
Curry's act attracts both black and white fans.
"I don't change for the audience," he said. "I do the same show. I have to be funny. I look at racism in a humorous way, but white people can get all the jokes. I act out every joke. I become that person. I use a lot of physical humor."
©1992 Orange County Register